First things first, let’s define what a dominant strategy is. There are always "good decks" and even "best decks," but to be truly dominant means to be a huge percentage of every field and an even disproportionately bigger percentage of Top 8s and winning multiple trophies while boxing out all other potential contenders from reaching the limelight for an extended period of time.
Now, playing the best deck is not the only way to win a tournament. So it goes without saying that finding a dominant strategy isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s often not possible in certain card pools because they’re too balanced and the metagame can flux to accommodate anything that can be offered up.
The point of this article is not to say that a dominant strategy is necessary or even that it exists today. Nor is it a retrospective designed to tie off and smack our wrists for nostalgia. I want to present you with some traits that dominant strategies of the past have had. This is so that you can recognize them in the decks you’re looking at when deciding what to play in a given format or tournament and keep them in mind when designing and building decks in order to maintain focus on the bigger picture goal of crushing the field and winning the tournament.
So I’ve created a short list of the dominant decks in the new era (Mirrodin on) in non-Eternal formats. This will be our main focus, though references to decks outside of this subset will likely be used for examples. Keep in mind that there are many extremely good decks and consensus "best decks" that weren’t as dominating as these. The list is intentionally kept short. Here’s the list that we’ll be revisiting throughout:
- 2 Myr Retriever
- 2 Atog
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Arcbound Worker
- 4 Myr Enforcer
- 4 Frogmite
- 4 Disciple of the Vault
- 3 Mana Leak
- 4 Day of Judgment
- 4 Spell Pierce
- 1 Deprive
- 4 Preordain
- 1 Stoic Rebuttal
- 1 Sylvok Lifestaff
- 1 Sword of Feast and Famine
So what made these decks so dominant? How did they transcend the title of "best deck" where others couldn’t? There are some factors from the metagame that surrounds them, but first and foremost let’s look at the traits of the decks themselves.
This is the most important factor, so much so that if the power level is high enough nothing else really matters—at least not as much. An extreme example of this (for illustrative purposes) would be the old Academy and Tinker decks of yore. You’re just dead so quickly and with such regularity that there isn’t much that can be done. The power level of a deck is always going to be contextual and relative (my favorite phrase), but it will be a very good indicator of the deck’s potential position in the metagame.
A deck doesn’t have to be powerful to win, but it does have to be powerful to dominate a format.
What is power? In this context, being powerful means being able to do extremely robust things—generating huge advantages on board or in hand (or both), locking the opponent out from doing anything of relevance, or outright killing them. If you’re doing more powerful things than your opponent, then the onus to overcome that deficit and beat you is on them. This is why generally speaking powerful strategies are "better" than the hate decks that target them.
To me, a big indicator of power is its statistics having to do with its nut draws. How regularly does the deck get its nut draws, and how often do they win those games?
For a deck to be dominant, it needs to be able to operate in a variety of circumstances. Another term that can be used here is "flexibility." You need to have game against anything and everything. The most common way to accomplish this is to have catchalls available to you, such as countermagic, targeted discard, Vindicate variants, and so on—cards that will do what you need it to against any type of threat.
Toolboxes and utility creatures can be used to spread a deck’s range of motion as well. Generic and flexible answers are a core principle of all long-term dominant strategies.
If a deck is not versatile, then there are going to be matchups or situations that arise that will be impossible to wiggle your way out of. If that is the case, then decks designed to create that type of game state will start to pop up, and the domination will fail.
A big part of versatility over a long period of time is also adaptability. The Caw-Blade decks that then became Stoneblade were incredible at exactly this. Tweaking numbers on things like Into the Roil and Spell Pierce, changing up the Equipment package, and even adding entire other colors—red for Cunning Sparkmage and Lightning Bolt or black for Inquisition of Kozilek and Creeping Tar Pit—in order to stay on top of the metagame.
The flipside of "generic answers" would be resilient threats. This is a more dynamic trait, as it can be accomplished multiple different ways. Most common is to interact on a different axis than one on which most traditional Magic decks try to operate. When people are killing creatures and winning combat, the player who eschews that nonsense to storm the opponent out instead is going to have a huge advantage.
There are also individually resilient threats due to them being difficult to interact with. This can be thanks to the nature of the threat (hexproof, regeneration, protection) or due to being a card type that is inherently harder to answer (artifacts, enchantments, lands, big spells that are hidden in your hand). There are more ways to kill a creature than an enchantment. Groundbreaking stuff, I know. Just think, though, what if Bitterblossom was a 1/1?
A lot of resilience is also created in the aggregate through overwhelming card advantage. If all of your cards are two-for-ones and all of your opponent’s cards are one-for-ones, then they’ll eventually be buried no matter how theoretically vulnerable your threats may seem. Cascade Jund was the best at exactly this. A 3/2 haste creature isn’t scary, but when it brings another card (which often generates yet another card), it becomes hard to maintain parity. A 3/3 that grows but takes up your whole turn to activate isn’t that threatening—until you realize it was Raging Ravine essentially free card-wise as it has been making mana all game. And so on.
You can also use your versatile answer cards to protect a position/threat rather than a purely disruptive element. Taking out a land or 20/20 indestructible at instant speed is hard enough, let alone through a flurry of Thoughtseizes and Muddle the Mixtures. This is the principle that aggro-control strategies operate under, but more on that in a bit.
One form of resilience is to just go so blazingly fast that they don’t have time to interact profitably.
Gotta go fast!
The reason I’m making speed its own trait even though it’s encompassed in the other categories is precisely to point out that it underlies and assimilates into them. You see, Magic is a game of strategic and tactical advantages, and a form of initiative can be extremely valuable. It’s the reason that we play first instead of drawing an extra card. So it makes sense that some of the most dominating strategies have also been the fastest.
If something is extremely fast, then it is inherently powerful, as it means you are doing robust things—probably earlier than you rightfully should be able to.
If something is extremely fast, it is naturally versatile, as a dead opponent can’t put you in tough spots. Killing the opponent outright is good against every archetype.
If something is extremely fast, it is often resilient. Or rather speed is a form of resilience. If you can get underneath the potential answer suite, then the advantage you generate can often be snowballed into a win as the opponent struggles to keep up from the back foot.
I also have a word on the side about alternative forms of speed. The thing about speed is that it doesn’t always necessarily mean that the opponent is actually literally dead. It can mean that you’ve accomplished the position that your deck is designed to win from. Be it desolate or lush resource-wise, steering toward pure inevitability, creating a hard lock, or whatever it may be, how quickly you accomplish that goal is what the deck’s speed is, not when they actually get to zero life.
This is another thing that’s extremely relative. Some of the decks on the list kill extremely quickly. Others don’t take full control or kill until much later. It all depends on the fundamental turn of the other decks in the format and how yours matches up with theirs.
If your deck can’t do what it’s supposed to with relative consistency, then it will not be able to contend for supremacy. Inconsistent decks can win tournaments, but they can’t dominate metagames.
There are multiple ways of achieving consistency. Or if you prefer, there are different types of consistency. As always, the place it all starts is the mana. Is the fixing sufficient to operate? And beyond just being able to cast your spells, do you have ways to operate while mana light and things to do with excess mana?
You can use draw smoothers to make your deck more consistent—things like cantrips, card selection, and card draw. Redundancy is another common form of helping with consistency. Having multiple cards that do similar things means that you’re more likely to get evenly balanced openers.
This is all stuff that you’ve heard before I’m sure. I think there’s a more subtle phenomenon at work with these super dominant decks though when it comes to consistency. They pretty much all have this thing in common when it comes to their types of draws where their average draw is still quite good and they play out a game of Magic but their nut draw is both nigh unbeatable and almost commonplace.
"Have a nut draw" is a deck design saying/philosophy, one that holds truer today than just about ever before in Magic. And these decks do have nut draws—and some very impressive ones at that.
Affinity’s nut draws are some of the most storied of all time.
Faeries had Thoughtseize into Bitterblossom as well as chaining Mistbind Cliques.
Thopter Depths had multiple Thoughtseize + combo draws thanks to Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth letting Dark Depths cast the Vampire Hexmage.
Delver had turn 1 Delver of Secrets flip shortly thereafter backed with seemingly endless Mana Leaks and Vapor Snags thanks to the help of Preordains and Snapcaster Mages.
Stoneblade was more of a case of super high-impact cards being cast early and often, starting with Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk; moving up to Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Gideon Jura; and finally ending with Sun Titan, all protected with countermagic and hyperefficient removal and control elements.
Cascade Jund’s nut draws were ones that involved a good curve, efficient mana usage, and having the answers and cascades line up well against what the opponent was doing.
Teachings is an interesting one since most people don’t think of control decks as having nut draws, but the fact is that they do; they’re just a little more subtle. The nut draw for Teachings was to make its land drops, accelerate with Prismatic Lens (and eventually Coalition Relic), use Damnation and spot removal to stabilize the board, and then pull ahead with Careful Consideration and Aeon Chronicler or Shadowmage Infiltrator before locking up the game with a Mystical Teachings chain. That may sound more like a "game plan" rather than a "nut draw," but for control decks, the two are often one and the same. If everything goes according to plan, then you win.
The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that nut draws are historically reserved for volatile decks or strictly draw/matchup dependent. These decks are hardly volatile, and the draws rarely depend much on what the opponent is doing. The more proactive the deck, the less it matters what the opponent is doing. This is another example of speed being of great importance.
A deck has a higher than normal percentage of nut draws (other decks get nut draws ~10% of the time, but you get yours closer to 20%).
The win rate for those nut draws is higher than normal (say other decks win ~80% of their nut draws, while you win 90+% of yours).
But! You also get to play a normal game on even footing if you don’t start with the nuts (most decks with higher-than-normal nut-draw potential are at a significant disadvantage in average draw vs. average draw games).
Then you’re looking at the makings of a potentially dominating deck.
Types Of Decks That Have Dominated
1. Busted: Hyper-fast overpowered decks. These don’t happen often, as they’re often due to developer mistakes. These decks are the ones that most commonly end in bannings. Linear and difficult to disrupt decks that kill much too quickly much too consistently.
2. Unique: Decks that operate on an axis entirely removed from the rest of the metagame and one that is difficult to interact with. This is all variety of combo decks and such.
3. Aggro-Control: If you don’t know what an aggro-control deck is, then you must be new to competitive Magic. Welcome! This is a deck that puts down a clock, often evasive and resilient, and then uses controlling elements (mostly countermagic) to protect the favorable position they’ve created. Now, this isn’t to say that all aggro-control decks are good or anything like that. Just that there is a tendency of this particular archetype popping up again and again in every iteration of every metagame of every format. It perfectly unifies all five of the traits discussed in this article (only slightly lacking in the "power" category).
4. Perfectly Placed: When a large percentage of the metagame has overlap (or coincidentally the semi-flexible answers hit the important spots) and one deck stands above the others and crushes them all at the game they’re trying to play. This is the holy grail of deckbuilding. It doesn’t happen often, but as the game moves closer to pushing all archetypes toward the midrange, it’s becoming more and more common. This is what control decks are striving for, and what Rock decks historically fail in because they’re often spread too thin. However, if a metagame is concentrated to almost exclusively being creature-heavy decks, then all-removal decks with card advantage can succeed. (Sound familiar? Wait for it . . . ) This is the category that Cascade Jund falls under for that reason.
What is unique about Standard right now is that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus "best deck" in the format. There were points where it felt like it was clearly Mono-Black Devotion, other points where it felt like it was clearly Mono-Blue Devotion, other points still that it was Esper Control, and a lot of time where it seemed entirely unclear.
If we are just looking at things in terms of decks that could potentially dominate a metagame, there are actually candidates for all four categories.
Busted: Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx based decks, like Mono-Red, Mono-Green, and R/G Devotion. Being reliant on permanents staying in play for devotion makes these not as resilient as one would like, and consistency seems to be an issue as well. These decks are definitely powerful though and certainly do some extremely explosive things.
Unique: Sphinx’s Revelation based decks, namely Esper and U/W Control. Creating giant Revelations is something that no other deck can really match or compete with. These decks are certainly powerful, and Sphinx’s Revelation being a big spell that hides in your hand makes them somewhat resilient as well. They have versatility in the form of catchall answers in countermagic, Detention Sphere, and Supreme Verdict. The shortcomings here are in speed as well as consistency. You can be fast enough and smooth enough, but you can’t be fast and smooth often enough it seems.
Aggro-Control: Mono-Blue Devotion. Tempo orientated rather than CounterSlivers-esque, but aggro-control nonetheless. I would argue that both a low resilience and only medium consistency is what is holding it back from being the clear best deck and potentially dominating the metagame.
Perfectly Placed: Mono-Black Devotion. This seems the closest to the ideal of its archetypical structure as defined by studying dominant decks of the past. Let’s look at it a little more closely.
Examining Mono-Black Devotion
I don’t have time to do this for every deck in the metagame, as fun as I may find it, but I will lay it out for the deck I have the most experience with in Mono-Black Devotion and leave the rest up to you.
Power: I would argue that Mono-Black Devotion is one of the most powerful decks in Standard. While it doesn’t have explosive Nykthos draws, it does have the most potent nut draw available in the format—Thoughtseize into Pack Rat. It also has one of the most potent card-advantage engines available.
Versatility: Thoughtseize is the king of exactly this, and Mono-Black Devotion is the deck with the most effective Thoughtseizes. I say this because the deck can cast it on turn 1 the most reliably, it regularly sideboards into additional copies in the form of Duresses, a large part of the deck’s game is based on how to pace its removal spells and threats, and the information gleaned from an early Thoughtseize allows the pilot to navigate the game with confidence. The removal suite is also quite versatile since a lot of the metagame is creatures anyway. Plus Hero’s Downfall has some pretty useful bonus text.
Resilience: Underworld Connections is the backbone of the deck and is a card that’s extremely difficult to interact with directly. Near impossible to outpace even if you have a direct answer, it often comes at a one-for-two card exchange (at best!). Gray Merchant of Asphodel is another card that can be troublesome for opponents because the effect can rarely be entirely mitigated, meaning that even if you get off a one-for-one trade it’s coming at a profit for the Mono-Black player. And it’s somewhat common to get into situations where a player may feel completely stabilized and safe but can’t do anything about the ensuing Gray Merchants.
Speed: This is the one category that might be lacking for Mono-Black Devotion. Pack Rat nut draws are certainly pretty quick, but that’s about it. And even then it’s pretty important to be on the play for it to work in a lot of matchups. Underworld Connections and Nightveil Specter come down relatively early but take a lot of time to start generating any advantage.
Consistency: Mono-Black Devotion gets an A+ for consistency. The mana is great save for the awkward double Mutavault draw, and it even gets a few bonus lands in the form of the aforementioned man land and Temple of Deceit for scry and Nightveil Spectering (and fuse on Far // Away, which I have in my sideboard). The deck has plenty to do with excess mana. The only real shortcoming is that it doesn’t always operate too well when mana light. Other than that the deck has draw smoothers in the form of scry lands, card advantage, and a ton of redundancy.
Could Mono-Black Devotion be the next dominant strategy? Or will it be another deck that steps up as best deck in the format? Or maybe a whole new deck will come out and put all these wannabes in their place! Who knows? We’ll have to see what Born of the Gods has in store for us!